EVENT: Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government troops may recently have committed rape and murder in North Kivu province, according to a UN envoy on October 14.
SIGNIFICANCE: More than 300 people were raped by three different militia groups just kilometres from a UN peace-keeping base in the same area during four days at the end of July and beginning of August. Women continue to suffer disproportionately in contemporary conflict. Despite policy reform and increased funding in the last decade, sexual and other forms of gender-based violence in war have reached epidemic proportions, most notably in DRC-type contexts.
ANALYSIS: Sexual violence is a persistent characteristic throughout the history of armed conflict. However, the wars of the last two decades have been particularly brutal, as armed groups have increasingly targeted non-combatants and specifically women:
During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped.
In Bosnia-Hercegovina during the 1990s, estimates range from 20,000 to 50,000 rapes in what became known as rape camps.
In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where conflict continues largely unabated, an average of 40 women are reportedly raped each day in South Kivu province alone.
Feelings of shame, fears of stigmatisation, retaliation from perpetrators, and poor reporting facilities mean that many crimes go undocumented. Indeed, reported rapes are in most places merely a fraction of rapes that are actually committed.
The physical, emotional and social consequences of sexual violence are catastrophic to the individual and the broader community both as conflict persists and during efforts to rebuild society after it. Moreover, the under-representation of women and minorities in the process of conflict resolution means that issues of gender inequality and violence are often not factored into peace accords and the attendant processes of transitional justice and reconciliation.
Motivation issues. The development of both local and international strategies for the prevention of and response to sexual violence requires a comprehensive understanding of the principal motivations for and causes of sexual violence, both generally and in the context of specific conflicts. Three inter-related explanations stand out:
1. Patriarchal societies. Conflict exacerbates existing gender imbalances, unequal power relations and discrimination in patriarchal societies. As such, wartime rape is often an expression of pre-existing animosity towards women, which in the absence of social norms of equality, is carried out with relative impunity. In addition, the predominance of men in security and judicial institutions reinforces the inexcusable yet still predominant feeling that sexual violence is mere 'collateral damage'.
2. Individual dynamics. Sexual violence often takes place in settings of persistent conflict. Young men frequently feel helpless and frustrated by the limited opportunities available to them to make a living, fostering resentment towards women who are often able to survive through peace-time activities and in some instances by selling sexual favours. Moreover, perpetrators are often victims themselves, trapped in cycles of violence and pressured to conform to the group that they take up arms with, either willingly or by force. Obedience to authority and the consequences of breaking rank may lead combatants to commit acts which individually they regard as wrong.
3. Strategic violence. Sexual violence may also be a form of strategic violence, a rational act of war used to achieve calculated aims through the terror and punishment of the target group. It instils fear among civilian populations, leading in some instances to coerced assistance to combatants, and in other instances to flight and displacement as civilians abandon their communities and give up property in the hope of ensuring their physical safety.
At the community level, mass rape and widespread sexual violation can also be understood as a form of cultural genocide aimed at destroying the social fabric of a group since women give birth to future generations. Though most victims are female, men and boys are also increasingly afflicted by sexual violence although such incidents are reported less frequently and are not the focus of most policy initiatives.
Policy responses. While provisions prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex feature in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is only in recent years that the issue of sexual violence in conflict has been properly addressed:
The 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) counts a broad range of sexual and reproductive violence crimes as among the gravest crimes of war, and on a mass scale, as "crimes against humanity". The codification of these crimes as well as the creation of legal structures and processes have made prosecution more of a reality.
In 2000, Security Council Resolution 1325 placed the issue firmly on the UN agenda, urging member states to address the impact of armed conflict on women, their role in peace-building and the gender dimensions of peace processes and conflict resolution.
Resolution 1820 (2008) recognised sexual violence and its consequences as posing a threat to international peace and security thereby opening the way to potentially more robust responses such as sanctions.
In 2009, Resolution 1888 led to the appointment of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General to lead system-wide action against sexual violence.
In combination these legal and normative developments have pushed sexual violence and gender in conflict to the top of the agenda for international donors and agencies, leading to a dramatic increase in funding and issue-specific programming, much of which focuses on addressing the effects of such violence on the individual and within the broader community (eg, emergency medical treatment, psycho-social care, rehabilitation programmes).
Sexual violence has also become a key concern of peacekeepers. Through patrols, human rights training and enforcing the rule of law and, in certain instances, the direct use of force, they seek to deter and address sexual violence in areas of deployment.
Challenges. However, significant challenges persist. These highlight the need for integrated and coordinated approaches that do not address sexual violence as an isolated or stand-alone issue but rather as a problem intimately bound up in the root causes and broader dynamics of conflict:
Predatory state and state-supported actors. In contexts such as the DRC and Sudan, the state itself has been the aggressor, as the members of the military and government-supported militias have, along with others, carried out acts of sexual violence against civilians. Security sector reform and human rights training are thus an integral component to combating sexual violence.
State sovereignty and impunity. Civilians face greater risks because of widespread impunity and weak domestic legislation (see EASTERN EUROPE: Post-Soviet societies still fail women - March 29, 2010). The inability or unwillingness of state institutions to bring perpetrators to justice engenders a permissive environment for aggressors and one in which victims have little recourse to action. Some countries do not include men in their legal definition of sexual violence. The key here is donor pressure to combat impunity and strengthen assistance to building the rule of law and institutional guarantees of protection to victims. Moreover, if society is to break the cycle of violence, psycho-social support also needs to be extended to perpetrators and witnesses of violence.
Prevention and post-conflict peace-building. Women and vulnerable groups continue to be left out of prevention and post-conflict initiatives. Bringing women and the issue of sexual violence into prevention efforts as well as post-conflict peace-building processes is key to addressing the systemic and societal causes of violence and the broader issue of gender inequality.
CONCLUSION: Targeted funding and programming that assists victims of sexual violence is useful and will continue to address the effects of sexual violence in conflict. However, if civilians are to be any safer, the challenge for policymakers is to address such violence in the context of the root causes of conflict as well as the broader institutional factors that enable such violence in the first place.
- Oxford Analytica
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